maanantai 22. joulukuuta 2014

Bagnodas, Raymond: The Devil's General - The Life of Hyazinth Graf von Strachwitz, "The Panzer Graf" - part 2/3

Count von Strachwitz had pretty much reasons to be satisfied with the previous year of 1942 as he was treated for his wounds in a hospital in Breslau. He had already gained the Ritterkreuz of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves. His troops had given him an honour name of "Der Panzer Graf", which translates to English as The Panzer Count. After the disaster of Stalingrad, individual units of the 6th Army, which were destroyed inside the Kessel, were recreated. Strachwitz, however, did not join the ranks of reformed 16th Panzer. Instead, he was, after his recovery, sent to the elite Wehrmacht formation - the Großdeutschland Panzergrenadier Division. Strachwitz was to lead its panzer regiment.

The Großdeutschland Panzergrenadier Division had evolved from the Guards Company of the General Staff in Berlin. This Guards Company was founded in 1921 to serve on sentry and parade duties. However, as the war broke out in 1939 it had become a truly battle worthy infantry regiment. To amplify its status as an elite formation, regiment was given some privileges. For instance it had  a special regimental insignia of GD with styled font in the collar tabs. The official regimental insignia was the side profile of the German standard steel helmet M35. The Großdeutschland Division was kept better armed, equipped and resupplied all through the war than any other Wehrmacht division. After the victorious Fall Gelb, or the Case Yellow, the German invasion of France in May - June 1940, Großdeutschland was given in Wehrmacht a rare honour of the right to wear a regimental armband.

Operation Barbarossa led the division near the gates of Moscow, where it fought with the 3rd Panzer (also known as the Bear Division of Berlin) to capture city of Tula. Stiff Soviet resistance and harsh winter mounted heavy casualties. Battalions had lost more than 50 % of their ranks.  It was time for GD to be sent home for reinforcements. In April 1942 GD become a motorized division. It was augmented with another infantry regiment, a panzer battalion of two companies, anti-tank, anti-aircraft and reconnaissance battalions. Equally important was the artillery regiment of three batteries.  All these required, naturally, more signals corps and strengthened supply train. All in all, the reformed GD was very potent and capable fighting unit. Although GD was officially a motorized division, it, with all respects, equalled  normal Wehrmacht panzer division. Summer 1942 meant for GD busy times and hard fighting in Voronezh, Rostov of Don and Rzhev. Division was used as a role of a fire brigade, which was trying to stabilize threatened or collapsing sectors of the front.  This resulted, obviously,  in mounting heavy casualties. GD had to withdraw the front to resupply and rest.

The latest resupply of winter 1943 in fact made the GD to be a full sized panzer division and even more. It received another panzer battalion and, most interestingly, a company of new heavy PzKpfw VI Tiger Ausf H tanks.

A PzKpfw VI Tiger Ausf H with some crewmembers

The famous Tiger had a cannon almost second to none! The 8,8 cm KwK 36 L/56 was powerful and very accurate. It had a penetration power to match all used firing ranges and armour protection until the introduction of Soviet JS-2 heavy tank.  As a basic AT-round Germans used PzGr. 39, which had an astonishing penetrating power of 83 mm at 2000 metres and 100 mm at 1000 metres. This was achieved by the sole physics of kinetic energy: the projectile weighted 10,2 kg and the muzzle velocity was as high as 800 m/s.  The accuracy of the cannon was legendary.  The hit probability in combat circumstances at 2000 meters was still 50 % and at 1000 meters much higher 93 %.  There were also other AT-rounds for the cannon,  for instance especially potent PzGr. 40 with a sub-calibre tungsten core. It scored even better than previous ammunition, but, since tungsten was rare and expensive, and not really needed here, it was not widely used.  One important factor related to the accuracy was the use of electric detonating cap, which enabled smoother firing.

PzGr.39 HL, shaped-charge warhead projectile or HEAT, had fixed penetrating power of 90 mm at all ranges, but it lost dramatically its accuracy as the shooting range got longer: at 1000 meters hitting probability was 63 % and at 2000 meters only dismal 20 %.  The very idea of shaped-charge warhead is interesting, lets have a closer look on how it works. In the HEAT projectile the explosive is packed around an inverted metal cone. On detonation, the cone collapses inwards to form a high velocity liquid-like jet which is capable of penetrating armour. I've seen the effects of HEAT penetration in the front turrets of T-55 and T-72 MBTs. The actual hole in the armour is relatively small, one could not always stick a finger though the hole, but the tanks were destroyed all right. Let's get back to Tiger, shall we? Some enemy tanks were destroyed by simply shooting them with High Explosive or HE-rounds, just another proof of the kinetic power the Tiger's cannon could provide.

The armour protection of a Tiger tank was outstanding and enabled its crew to survive and carry on fighting as Soviet T-34 shells were fired at it. Frontal armour was as thick as 100 mm, this, however, led to other problems such as very heavy weight and poor power to weight ratio. Tiger was like an up scaled PzKpfw IV with a lot of more of everything. This led to a design error: the armour was not sloped, but almost at 90 degree angle.

A direct hit, but no penetration. Tiger fights on...

The Tiger company of the GD was later augmented to full sized battalion and Strachwitz become the leader of Tiger battalion. He did a great job, as usual. Tigers of GD destroyed all together 1034 enemy tanks during the war and had a winning ratio of 16,67. Most of these were scored during the time Strachwitz was on the lead. The Großdeutschland Division was supplied and ready for front line service once again. It received orders to march to Belgorod in Ukraine.

The Third Battle of Kharkov

As GD arrived in Belgorod it was attached to German Army Detachment Lanz (Armee-Abteilung Lanz). With GD in the detachment there was the 168th Infantry Division led by General Lanz. The mission was to help 2nd SS-Panzer Corps commanded by SS-General Paul Hausser to defend and hold firmly Kharkov at any cost. The SS-Panzer Corps was the ultimate best what Germans could deploy on the battlefield: the elite troops of divisions like Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, Das Reich and Totenkopf were nothing but battle hardened and ferocious panzergrenadier veterans of many engagements with the enemy.

The Red Army had advanced from the killing grounds of Stalingrad to the outskirts of Kharkov. Yet, Soviets had only one goal in mind, to trust further west and liberate Kharkov. The Third Battle of Kharkov was an outstanding success for Germans, although it was at the same time their last tactical or any major victory at all over the Red Army. By disobeying the direct Führerbefehl from Hitler himself not to leave the city but stay firm, General Hausser evacuated Kharkov and thus saved 2nd SS-Panzer Corps from the fate of the unfortunate 6th Army. Even better was to came, Hausser managed to encircle and annihilate Soviet forces involving the battle in and around the city. With his outstanding victory he was left unpunished by Hitler.

The initial phase of the battle in February was not opening promisingly for the Germans. The practically immobile 168th Infantry was cracking when facing a full Soviet onslaught. The GD managed to stabilize their situation for a moment, but finally the 168th collapsed and started to escape westwards. There was a gap in the front, which was fully exploited by the Soviets. They send 69th Army to push through the gap all the way to Kharkov. Germans had no other choice than to split the Großdeutschland Division into three separate battle groups in order to back up the wobbling 168th Infantry and 2nd SS-Panzer Corps. The strongest of these battle groups was the one named as "Strachwitz".  By this far the battle group was the biggest one Strachwitz had ever commanded. 

The Panzer Graf did not hold on and wait for things to happen. No, he seized the initiative and let his high professionalism, courage and use of innovative, if sometimes unorthodox, methods to lead the way to success. By studying three different examples of his methods one can form a picture of his brilliance. Strachwitz used the long range capabilities of  his Tiger's cannons as well as two individual trickery to cope with overwhelming enemy. In Perekop Strachwitz with his Tiger company saw an incoming large Soviet tank formation far ahead on the steppe. He quickly gave orders to take ambush positions and to wait for command to open fire. Some Tiger crews, in a brink of losing their nerves, watched unsuspicious enemy tank column getting nearer and nearer from the horizon with no authorisation to open fire. Suddenly Strachwitz's voice was heard over the radio: Feuer frei! Nine enemy T-34/76s and one KV-1 tank were left burning on the battlefield with no German losses. Remaining enemy tanks fled the scene.

The war diary of the Großdeutschland's 13th company of the Panzer Regiment stated on the 27th of March 1943 as follows: "Usually the first shot scored a hit at ranges between 600 to 1000 metres. At these ranges panzergranate penetrated the frontal armour with devastating results, destroying also the engine of the tank located in the back of the vehicle."

Tigers on the hunt

It was snowing and roads were slippery for the panzer drivers when Strachwitz's troops took the village of Popov. Soviets tried instantly to recapture Popov by sending in a reinforced tank battalion of 30 T-34/76 tanks.  Strachwitz divided his panzers to two groups: first was to form a defensive line to counter incoming enemy. The second was to make a pincer move and get into the back of the enemy.  The plan worked well and as the second group had Soviet tanks in their crosshairs they fired a salvo. Totally surprised Soviet tankers turned their turrets to six o'clock to face the treat.  It was the moment the first group had waited for: now it was their turn to fire a salvo at the most vulnerable armour of the enemy tanks, their rear plates. The outcome of the battle was evident, 28 tanks out of 30 were destroyed while only two managed to escape.

Even if Strachwitz's Tigers were temporarily out of battle condition, that couldn't stop him. He arranged an ambush by setting up a special decoy team out of couple of PzKpfw IIIs and SdKfz 251 halftracks. These lured pursuiting Soviet tanks to a prearranged position, where German PzKfpw IIIs, IVs and StuG 40s opened fire hitting the side armour of enemy tanks at point blank range. Again the Soviet tanks had no chances of survival.

The Third Battle of Kharkov

The Third Battle of Kharkov took place between the 19th of January and the 15th of March, 1943. For Strachwitz it had been quite a successful one, for his merits he received swords to his ritterkreuz.  It has been estimated that this battle cost the Red Army huge casualties of 154 000 troops (dead and wounded) and some 1000 tanks, not to mention 20 000 dead civilian inhabitants of Kharkov. Losses for Wehrmacht were 11 500 troops but annoyingly Bagnodas doesn't supply us with the exact figures of KIA and WIA proportions or any figures concerning German tank losses. As the Red Army had stretched its supply lines to the extreme, losses were mounting and the spring thaw, the Rasputitsa, was beginning,  the front in Ukraine stabilized. Kharkov was firmly in the German hands. The Großdeutschland Division was once again sent to the rear for rest and refit.

A Conspirator

A growing dissatisfaction had been evolving among the officer core of the Wehrmacht against the way National Socialists were waging the war. Several incidents had been starting to compromise the trust, notably the infamous "Komissarbefehl", the Commissar Order, which dictated all communist commissars to be shot on the spot of their captivity. In the 16th Panzer of General Hube, however, this order was not followed. Many individuals in the Wehrmacht, especially officers who had had some access to the general situation, blamed Hitler and Göring for the disaster of Stalingrad. These were also concerns for Strachwitz as he tried to understand what had happened to him and to the German Army. Sacking the qualified leader of the XIV Panzer Corps, von Wietersheim, by Hitler, only gave Strachwitz a personal motive to start doubting the skills of the Führer himself.

Bagnodas quotes the first published Strachwitz biography (Günther Fraschka: Der Panzergraf: Ein Leben für Deutschland, Rastatt 1962) by giving us an insight what was troubling him at the time. This is the comment Strachwitz gave right after the successful medical evacuation flight from the Kessel of Stalingrad. He said: "The day I abandoned my comrades into a hopeless situation... I firmly decided to invent a way to let loose our military leadership from the power of Hitler and liberate the political life of Germany from its burdens."

Before the battle of Kharkov, early in the 1943, Strachwitz took part in a conspiracy plot to arrest Hitler and put him in trial for war crimes. The plan was called "The Poltava Plot". Strachwitz was to form a small, but loyal panzer unit out of Großdeutschland's panzer regiment to arrest Hitler as  he was to make a front line visit to Poltava. The plot never worked as Hitler changed his plans and instead flew to Manstein's HQ in Zaporozhye.

Interestingly enough, an another member of Großdeutschland Division had a major role in suppressing the von Stauffenberg coup on the 20th of June, 1944 in Berlin. Major Otto Remer, commander of the Infantry Regiment of Großdeutschland took direct orders by the telephone from the Führer himself, out of Wolfschanze in Rastenburg, to crush the conspirators. Hitler and the Third Reich were saved, at least for the moment. In the aftermath of the 20th of June Strachwitz got his name into the files of Gestapo. He was, however, not arrested and no consequences ever fell upon him. It's probable that early, pre 1933, party membership, membership of the SS and the favour of Himmler saved him.


Anderson, Thomas (2014) Tiger - Raskas Panssarivaunu. Helsinki: Koala-Kustannus.

Guderian, Heinz (1956) Sotilaan Muistelmia. Helsinki: Otava.

Quarrie, Bruce (1989) Encylopaedia of the German Army in the 20th Century. London: Patrick Stephens Limited.


Pictures Wikimedia Commons

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